My students – and the rest of us – are partly who others say we are. That’s a key reason why each of us needs to be one of the voices (preferably the most prominent) defining us. To the extent that they live public lives in any way – and like it or not, it’s getting harder not to be public in some way – tomorrow’s adults will need an online home that they control. They need an online home, a place where they tell the world who they are and what they’ve done, where they post their own work, or at least some of it.
Of course, the students and most of their parents have a presence on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+, Tumblr, Flickr and all sorts of other places. The value of conversation and sharing in general is enormous, and these services offer great convenience. But to cede our online presences – in a way, our very identities – to these entities strikes me as a mistake.
Now, LinkedIn and the other services aren’t likely to alter what we say about ourselves in our profiles and other postings, and they offer convenience plus teams of people who handle issues like security, not to mention visibility for users. Yet, we all need to remember who’s in charge at those social media sites. You and I are just visitors, suppliers of content they hope to use to make money.
Again and again, we’ve all seen the risks of putting our proverbial eggs in these corporate baskets. Again and again, we’ve seen that “free” always comes at a price, whether it’s using the data we generate to make money, outright invasions of privacy, or the real possibility that the service might (and sometimes does) disappear at the whim of the owner. Google’s decision this month to shutter its Reader product, which helped countless people (including me) organize our information intake, is only one recent example of such a corporate move.
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Getting a domain is easy, and cheap. For the price of a few cups of coffee, you can register a domain. I use Gofvs.com, which is run by a friend, but there are lots of reputable registrars from which to pick. (The always valuable Lifehacker lists some others here.) Unless you have an extremely uncommon last name, you’ll be unlikely to find it available. But you may well be able to get your FirsnameLastname.com address – I own dangillmor.com, for example – and even if you can’t you can use other domain suffixes or find a name that is still useful. Remember, most people find websites via searches, so don’t worry if you can’t get your exact name.
Let’s say you’ve gotten your domain name. How do you create your presence? Most registrars will help you create placeholder sites – a page or two that you can edit. My advice is to do something better: start a blog. One of the easiest ways is to get a WordPress.com account, and use its powerful blogging tools. The company has demonstrated a powerful commitment to the open web by also offering its software, open source, for others to download, use and modify. For a reasonable fee, you can have WordPress point your blog to your own domain.
You can also install your own blogging software. This gives you more flexibiity, and takes a bit more expertise, but many low-cost hosting companies as low as $1.49/mo – the internet providers that provide (typically shared) servers that power your domain – will set up blogs for you. My own provider has web-based software that makes it simple for me to create new sites.
I don’t update my personal blog all that often anymore, though I’ve decided to get more active than I’ve been. Like many other people who’ve flocked to social networks, I’ve cut back on posting to my own sites while increasing my activity on social media, especially Twitter and Google+. (I no longer use Facebook in any public way.)
Again, I recognize the trade-offs. Those services’ huge size means I can get my ideas and information in front of thousands of people easily without having to lure them to my own blogs. Then there’s convenience: I have to update my personal blog software (it’s easy), while the online giants do it for us.
These trade-offs will only grow more difficult, I suspect. But there’s at least one I won’t make: giving up control of who I am and what I believe to people who may or may not be my friends in years to come. To the extent that I possibly can, I will control at least this much of my own destiny. You should, too.
By Dan Gillmor